In Italy, as you might well know, wine has always been a food, not necessarily something that you drink. The gastronomy itself is very regional, much of it as old as the hills, and probably even more of it as stylish or innovative as anything the Italians do. That’s the miracle of the Italian wine and food culture: its propensity to renew itself in delicious, and inspiring, ways.
The last time I was in Italy, which was always miracle enough for me (an overgrown kid from Hawai`i), I did what you do when you visit: get run off the road by the hell-bent natives, while meandering through those ageless towns perched atop impossibly steep, craggy hills, awash in colors seemingly more golden, deeper brown, a more Sistine blue than anywhere else in the world; the natural light from above bouncing off shimmering lakes lying like giant mirrors under the sky.
I think the most beautiful lake of all may have been the one called Albano, in the township of Marino located just twenty minutes outside of Rome. Some of the popes must have also thought of it as a miracle, too, since they built a summer home there on its bluffs -- an Italian “Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” or so I’m told.
This area around Lake Albano is also a posh neighborhood, complete with a history befitting its address along the old Appian Way, amidst a wealth of moneyed and not-so-moneyed-anymore marquis and, nowadays, even a fabulous underground wine restaurant. I dropped (literally) in that eatery, called Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli; and if you like sipping incredible (and incredibly reasonable priced) wines to acoustic guitars and violas in deep, vaulted cellars and tunnels beneath the Nuova Appia, you'll have a good time. I wouldn't be surprised if the pope, who still lives next door, has his own private underground entrance.
Practically across the street from the pope's palazzo and the Pagnanelli's restaurant is another miracle: the home of Paola di Mauro, one of the greatest cooks in Italy. I said cook, not "chef," since Paola's kitchen looks like anyone else's home kitchen; no high tech equipment or cold steel countertops, just pots, pans, bottles, wooden boxes, utensils and cutlery strewn about in cramped quarters. Then again, there lies the difference, because how many other home cooks have a little vineyard, a grove of olive as well as fruit trees, and a working winery just outside her kitchen door? But you have to forgive her for this since this is Marino, after all; a very old neighborhood that dates back to the days of fun and games at the Colloseum. Groves, vineyards, and meandering tunnels simply come with the territory.
It seems that in the mid-sixties Paola bought her property from another lady who was originally from Bordeaux in France. So French grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, sauvignon blanc and sémillon are still to be found in Paola's vineyard, alongside native Italian varieties like trebbiano and malvasia di Lazio. It just made sense for Paola to continue to make wine from her backyard – at first, both reds and whites, for her own amusement, and then for family and friends.
And wouldn't you know: the wines of Colle Picchioni, the name of Paola's estate, soon became the darlings of the wine insiders' world. Gambero Rosso, Italy's equivalent to the Wine Spectator in the U.S., gave Paola's red wine (made from merlot and the two cabernets) its highest rank (a symbol of three "glasses"). The internationally known, and feared, wine writer named Robert Parker has been most generous with his own 90-plus ratings. And as little as they produce – less than 1,200 cases, a mere drop in a bucket in Italy's ocean of wine – Colle Picchioni can now be found in some of the toniest restaurants in the world, in places as far off as Tokyo, Berlin, Beverly Hills, New York, and (to Paola’s amusement) Disney World.
But the miracle is not that Paola's wines have become famous, nor the fact that she is actually better known – at least to the Italian food gastronomes who speak of her as reverently as Alice Waters does of Lulu Peyraud – for her cooking. It is also a miracle that she and her son, Armando, still actually produce wines in the fashion that they, rather than critics like Robert Parker, prefer. And this is wine that is meant to go with the food Paola cooks in her kitchen.
Let me be a witness. The first wine Armando poured for me – at the kitchen table while Paola was pan frying with pungent rosemary and olive oil – was a two year old Colle Picchioni Marino Bianco Donna Paola: a soft, dry, fluid white wine, rather light and almost oily on the palate. What it wasn't was something big, thick, oaky, fruity or awesome – none of the flag words for the most highly rated wines of today. It is, in fact, an old fashioned wine; small in stature and rather plain, or square; almost boring by the standards of contemporary, internationalized wine.
While we sipped and talked about their friends in Santa Monica, California (Valentino’s Piero Selvaggio is one of Paola’s culinary disciples), Paola brought over her white bean soup – made from a different bean, a little more fava-like, from the better known white beans of Tuscany – over which Armando drizzled olive oil and dried chile flakes, and then stirred in a tiny dollop of blood red paste made from tomatoes, bell peppers and olive oil. The taste was smooth, soothing, yet tingly and robust; each sensation intensified by the round, easy, mildly oily texture of the Colle Picchioni white. Call it a food and wine epiphany. It often is when seemingly simple things add up to something unexpected, like the roar of great waters (or in this case, unassuming wine) knocking you from the saddle on the road to Damascus.
Then Paola finished what she was cooking in the pan, bringing a ceramic pot to the table containing her "Roman lamb." Nothing cute about the name, since she lives in Rome and this is lamb; but lamb in the way she had been cooking it over the past thirty years: bony morsels with chicken livers and other odd ends, rosemary, dried anchovy, white vinegar, pepper, and generous doses of the all-pervasive olive oil (for a reasonable facsimile, please re this recipe for abbachio alla Romana)
"Now we will show you why in Rome we drink white wine with everything," says Armando, "even with red meat." And indeed, what was plain as the Italian hills was how easily the oil and herbs in the lamb pulled together with the soft, oozing quality of the white wine. "The dish is not a difficult one," added Paola, "but neither is the wine. Great wine and food is not always complicated."
That reminded me a conversation I had with the Italian winemaking genius, Riccardo Cotarella, just a few days before at his dinner table in Umbria. "Drinking wine is a pleasure,” he had said, “and so you should always judge a wine by how much pleasure you feel when you drink it."
The rare wines of Colle Picchioni may fulfill this elemental advice, but you needn't look far to find other wines that achieve the same thing: Italy's Frascati and Soave Classico, Sicily’s nero d’Avola, wines made from verdejo, tempranillo and garnacha grapes in Spain, the little torrontés of Argentina, picpoul and Cahors from South-West France, lembergers from Washington and Austria, Oregon’s disrespected syrahs, California’s underestimated petite sirah and near-forgotten charbono, the under-appreciated rieslings and even more misunderstood gewürztraminers and scheurebes of Germany… these and zillions of other wines that are bound to impress you more by their unconscious ease on the table than by any numerical ratings found in the wine magazines.
Have you already seen the memo? I apologize if it came from me, since I just can’t help thinking: the miracle of wine is that it is not at all a pot of gold shimmering in the hills – 90-plus point wines of astronomic prices that are that way mainly because they’ve become objects of attention of collectors who are really nothing more than syllogomaniacs (obsessive-compulsive hoarders) with money to burn and habit of believing everything they read – but rather, something as easy to find as your next good meal, at home or at the next stop along the road. As long as there’s decent, food worthy bottle of wine to go with it!